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Ramadan: Starving in Senegal


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June 18


Yesterday, I awoke at 5AM to the thunder of rain on the tin roof. As deaf as I am, thunder it must have been. Awa slept on; the sleep of the blessed. She has that gift of being able to fall asleep in an instant; and stay there!


When I went out to greet the morning the world smelled different. There were mud puddles and moisture instead of dust. I bicycled to the maison and Dog followed me for the first time, stopping here and there to sniff something or mark a bush. At the house he was positively frisky and, for the first time, I saw him play. For a dog who has seemed resigned to a dog's life of dim days, he is actually acting as though he has captured “the thing with feathers”. I've never pictured Dog hot-doggin' it, but there he was!


Today, Awa and I went to Ziguinchor on “Mandela” (the F650GS/Dakar). We ran errands: renewal of motorcycle insurance, residency papers, buying some medications. We also took a kilo or so of sugar to her friend, Haddie, our friend, Dembo, and I gave her father some sugar, five kola nuts, and some money. This is a sign of respect, for tomorrow begins the holy month of Ramadan, a month-long Yom Kippur of fasting from dawn to dusk, self-denial, and self-reflection. The sugar symbolizes a sweet Ramadan. Five is a sacred number in Islam and the kola, well, that's traditional West African exchange for anything worthwhile. It's like Plains Indians giving tobacco; a sign of respect and honor.


We came home to Li'l Bit bouncing out of the kitchen to greet us like a tiny rubber wind-up toy. And the three little girls, Mariama, Yama, and TiAwa, had made dinner for us: a bowl of plain spaghetti with a fried egg on top. We ate it with bread and salt and mayonnaise and smiles.


The well has run almost completely dry, so Sol, the well-digger, went back down inside and has built a two-meter-tall cylinder of cement blocks within the larger cylinder of the well. After it sets for a few days he'll go back down and dig the well deeper, gradually undermining the new cylinder and allowing it to settle deeper. He's convinced that will do the trick and the well won't run dry again. I hope not.


June 27


Sol brought two workers yesterday. One to haul up the buckets of water and mud. The other, a small, wiry man named Issa, hacked away the clay mud from the bottom of the well. I marveled at his hard work....and his muscle definition!

But, by the time they packed up their tools and left, declaring the job finished, they had only dug about a meter more depth and water trickled in – to my untutored eye – very slowly. Issa showed me that by today the water would be waist deep.

Well, it wasn't it was only a foot deep. Malang told me Sol would be returning to check on things. It will have to be dug deeper. How much deeper remains to be seen.


And the double front doors were delivered. And, like the kitchen door and the back door, they have been built wrong. They open the wrong way. I have gone over and over this with the guy building the doors – and thought we had gotten it clarified at last, only to be disappointed. In addition, several of the panels are shoddily made.

Do I expect too much? Are my standards impossibly high? After all, they are working with wood that has internal flaws. They are used to making do with what they have. But, should I not be dismayed when I see a temporary brace nailed in into what will be a visible surface of the finished product? A hole that will be a defect to be filled and ever visible? Not even second-rate work. Fourth-rate!

I initially hired a carpenter recommended by a friend. Without consulting me, he gave the work to someone else to do, later telling me “We work together.” But the workmanship has been shoddy and it distresses me to see gorgeous wood that took many years to grow, disrespected and butchered.


“Pas grave!” (It's not serious!) they say. “We can fix it.” Or “No problem!” Instead of doing it carefully the first time, they patch their mistakes. And patch them badly. Everything is “pas grave”. When nothing is serious, nothing gets done right and that is what is tolerated here. I don't understand why people don't expect better standards, why everything is tolerated with a laissez-faire attitude. Granted, it makes for less stress. Nobody gets upset about anything. But it makes for crappy workmanship, crappy service, crappy work, in general. I remember Mam Marie, the head of nursing at RVTH telling me, “You get upset too easily.”

I wanted to tell her, “You don't get upset easily enough!” But, I didn't.


Fortunately, the mason and tile-man now working at the house, Vieux, has high standards. I value and trust his work. And the painter, Moussa Camara, is doing an outstanding job. Now, if we can just get the rest done properly.....


Che Guevara


What happens when a man becomes an icon? In West Africa, and elsewhere in the Third World where I have traveled, there are images of the young Che Guevara everywhere. Plastered on motorcycles and local transport vans, on T-shirts, on posters. You know the picture, the one with the beret and beard and red star.

A few days ago I was riding along behind a geli-geli with two Che decals flanked by two of Madonna! If there's a connection I'd like someone to explain it to me.

I wonder how many people actually know anything about him; who he was, what he stood for; how he lived and died. And I wonder how he would feel about having his image plastered all over the world.


When I had my medical practice back in Port Orchard, Washington, two of my patients were a married couple in their seventies. The man, Phil Robbins, was a retired Army bird-colonel, and a very interesting man. Compact, and neatly-built, with a precise mustache, he had been born in the tiny coastal Indian village of La Push, Washington, where his father was lighthouse keeper. He'd joined the horse cavalry in 1939 – there still was a horse cavalry then – and eventually became a forward artillery observer in Patton's Third Army. Landing in Normandy 13 days after D-Day, he fought in the ferocious sweep through the bocage, the hedgerow country, and was promoted from the ranks to lieutenant by Patton himself when they got to the Rhine. A forward artillery observer is right up there with the guys in the front line and he came home with the Silver Star for gallantry and various other medals. He stayed in the Army after the war, working in intelligence and running part of the sub-rosa “dirty tricks” campaign from Italy, trying to destabilize and sabotage Tito's Yugoslavia. (It didn't work, of course!)When Korea came he was again a forward observer on the long march up to the Yalu River and the bitter retreat when the Chinese entered the war and counterattacked. (He later told me that of all “his” wars, Korea was the hardest.) After Korea he eventually joined the new Special Forces and trained counterinsurgency forces in Latin America. The Vietnam war found him adviser to an ARVN regiment in South Vietnam. Back in Latin America after the US withdrawal, he trained the troops in Bolivia that eventually captured – and murdered – Che Guevara.

He would often stop by the office just to say hello and chat. I welcomed his visits and enjoyed his company. He'd been extensively self-educated and spoke Spanish, German, and Russian.

He told me that one evening he was having dinner at a restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia, and noticed a couple at the next table. There was something oddly familiar about the man but he couldn't quite place what it was. After the couple had finished their dinner, paid the tab, and left, he realized the man was Che. There were no recent photos of him, Che had gained weight, and, in civilian clothes, he looked different from the mental image he had of the man.

Phil Robbins had a dapper, matter-of-fact attitude towards it all. I never judged him and never told him my own sympathies and values were closer to those of Che than to his own.

Phil Robbins fought in three wars and was never wounded. Not even scratched. One day, he tripped down two steps into his garage, hitting his head on the concrete floor. He'd been on “blood-thinners” prescribed by his VA physician, bled into his head and died three days later.

Rest in peace, Colonel Phil Robbins. And rest in peace, Ernesto Guevara.


I encountered that same matter-of-fact attitude in another of my former patients, Arvid Dahl, a kind, six-foot-five gentleman who had been a B-17 pilot in World War II. He had been in the lead box of bombers in the infamous Second Schweinfurt raid, “Black Thursday”. America lost 60 bombers that day; 600 men. He told me he never got close to his crew. “If you don't know them you won't grieve so much.”


July 9


Eight more days until Eid al Fitr, known as koriteh here, marking the end of Ramadan. Everyone is looking forward to it except my friend, Cheikh, who seems to enjoy it and feels cleansed and purified and closer to God. I bought Awa some lovely, grass-green, damask ganilo, the highest-quality fabric made in Mali, beaten by hand with mallets to achieve density and sheen. She will have it made into a complet. Two times a year people have new, fancy outfits made: koriteh and tobaski, the annual celebration of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac. On each occasion people celebrate with a big feast and new clothing, cooking lots of food so they can send portions to neighbors, family, and friends.


And last night it rained. Real rain. A long, good, soaking rain. A month late and most welcome. The sky is overcast and the air is heavy and humid as the inside of a goldfish bowl. Bicycling into town felt like pedaling in mud. Of course, I was pedaling in mud! Puddles the size of small New York boroughs are everywhere and I expect there will be a great bloom of mosquitoes forthwith.


And ants! Flying and crawling. And this is when the termites swarm. They grow four delicate wings and gather in great, moiling crowds around any light. Tonight, Awa and I tried to eat dinner in the unscreened outdoor kitchen but were driven into our bedroom (screened) to finish the meal there. Even so, flying ants managed to get in, I know not from where.


We've been coexisting with a nest of black-and-red ants living under our toilet. They don't bother us. We don't bother them. Tonight, they swarmed and their end of the bathroom was a-crawl with ant life. I went off to the new house to retrieve a bottle of boric acid powder I'd brought from the States. Arriving back home, Awa was dancing around, fanning herself with her skirt. She'd been stung by black ants (nasty!!). They were swarming over the sink and part of the kitchen. So be it! Live and let live, but when they sting my Awa they've thrown down the gauntlet.


Off to the nearby corner boutique (The word boutique doesn't imply anything exclusive, as it does in English. It's simply a small store.) to buy a bombe (aerosol can) of poison spray. I came home and let 'em have it. Anticide! Formidable! (That's a French pun, folks!) Same with my former coexistants in the bathroom. I later swept them all up and filled a dust pan.


In The Gambia where there are street lights, flying termites would swarm and dozens of toads would sit beneath gobbling up any that fell. In the mornings there would be windrows of shed wings blowing across the roads. At Abuko Nature Reserve the red monkeys would be in pig heaven, snatching termites out of the air and eating them. I once had a big monitor lizard come within inches of my motorcycle boot, so intent was he on catching flying termites. I have a feeling they are loaded with fat, a high-energy meal for insectivores.


Which leads me to wonder whether we humans aren't missing out on a vast protein source: insects. Could they be processed into reasonably edible foods for people? After all, Australian aborigines eat witchiti grubs. Lots of different people eat grasshoppers and locusts. In Oaxaca, I tried a grasshopper dusted with chili powder, from a tray of same in the hands of a stolid Indian lady in the market. Can't say I'd go back for seconds on that particular recipe but perhaps the one I tried was a bit underdone.


The cashews are pretty much finished and there are so many mangoes they lie rotting. My friend, Moussa Caramba, gave me a mango the size of a cantaloupe. Two of us couldn't finish it. It would be a trip to make juice out of them. In Ethiopia I had a “juice” that was just blendered up mango and avocado, so thick you had to eat it with a spoon. Yum! I'll have to see if I can find a reasonably-priced blender here. I saw one in The Gambia the other day, a Russell Hobbs from England, but they wanted the equivalent of $180 for it. A bit steep, I'd say.


Two things I want for the new house: a blender and a vacuum cleaner. I've never seen a vacuum cleaner here but I know they must exist. I have two rugs, one for the parlor and the other for the bedroom. Without a vacuum cleaner they will simply accumulate dirt. People don't really have rugs of any size here. What rugs exist will be swept routinely and on occasion taken outside and beaten. The two I have are a bit big for that, so a vacuum will be de rigeur.


I went to The Gambia two days ago to withdraw money from the bank, change it to dalasis and CFA, and run errands. My old friend, Binta Baldeh, is head of the lab at the Serrekunda Health Center. She was in training as a technician back when I was running Accident & Emergency at RVTH. She would come to the department on her free time and help me out, translating and doing errands. She was small and lovely and I was quite smitten at that time but we never went further than a handshake. She later married and has, I think, two children now. It has been years since I've seen her and I thought I'd pay her a visit. More complicated than it seems! I was told she was chief of lab at the clinic in Banjulinding, a small community not far from the airport. But when I had gone there a couple of weeks ago I was told she was now lab chief at Serrekunda. That's a bit more difficult. The Serrekunda Health Center is lodged in the midst of narrow, unbelievably crowded streets, teeming with people, cars, trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, wheelbarrows, push-carts, donkey carts, sheep, and nearly anything else you can imagine. Getting there is at a snail's pace, stop-and-go, dodging through the crowds and having to be instantly alert to constantly changing, chaotic traffic. Not – as my mother would archly declare – my cup of tea!


But I did it. Found the place. Got there. Found the lab. And was told she didn't come to work that day.

I managed to get out of the neighborhood a bit more easily than I got in.


Mam Jarra Coly, a dignified, generous, Jola elder died last Thursday. I had lodged in her compound when I first came to Kafountine in 2011 and she had always been very kind to me. She'd been in hospital here, then in Ziguinchor, and finally in Dakar. They couldn't find out what was wrong with her and I have no knowledge of what was wrong. But she died. Her son, Ebrima, known as Bebe, came from California for the funeral which was held in their home village, Baila, about an hour from here. Hundreds came. Six van-loads from Kafountine alone. I arrived late, having only heard about the funeral that morning, but Bebe was pleased and gave me a long hug, then took me around to meet his father and many others. I was the only toubab, of course, though Bebe has many toubab friends and is married to a toubab woman from Cal. His wife, Aisha, speaks fluent Wolof and dances African-style like nobody's business. They have three beautiful beige kids. Bebe is a big, charismatic guy, a natural leader, In California, he builds adobe houses.


So, what am I leading up to? While I was in Serrekunda I had some 5X7 photos printed of Mam Jarra, a picture I'd taken of her back when and on the way back home I took them to Baila and gave one to her husband and the remainder to Bebe. They really appreciated it. The photo shows Mam Jarra with her warmest smile. She was the sort of woman that when she smiled you just had to smile back.


Her children were all participating in a funeral ritual. Bebe's dreadlocks had all been cut off and I almost didn't recognize him. I couldn't hand the photos to him. The family mourners were not allowed to give or receive anything. I had to lay them on the mat where they were sitting and another family member had to pick them up and hand them to Bebe. I was invited to stay the night but declined. Too much to do at home.


Rituals. Beliefs. The other day one of the hens laid an egg in my storage room. I picked it up and showed it to Malang. “What hand you pick it up with?” Malang asked me. I was puzzled and he repeated the question. “My right hand,” I told him. “Ah!” he said. “Then it can not have a baby. It only for eating now. If you want it have baby you must pick it up with your left hand.”


July 10


Sonko finally finished the frame for the solar panels. Five of us carried it to the maison and, after checking to see if the small solar panel, the one that will power the water pump, would fit – it did, with nothing to spare! -- hoisted it onto the walls. It is the right size but the steel legs that will be cemented into the walls were too close to the edge of the walls. So, we carried it back to Sonko's welding shop, about half a mile. They cut the legs off and re-welded them a bit more centrally. Then, after jum'aa services we carried it back. It took Vieux and me a bit of jockeying around to get it properly aligned and then we started chiseling away concrete to accept the legs. What I envisioned as a quick job turned out to be more complicated.....as always! I'd forgotten about the rebar inside the concrete and it took quite a bit of bending, cutting and chiseling before the frame was completely in place and ready to be cemented in.


But still, that wasn't enough for Vieux. The man is amazing! He takes his time and doesn't miss a trick. He considers his work with a careful intelligence. He fetched a role of the wire used for tying rebar, then wired the frame legs to the rebar in the walls. Where there wasn't exposed rebar, he folded the wire into quadruple strands, bored holes through the concrete blocks and wired the frame directly into the walls. It will take a tornado to vex that panel installation.


Watching Vieux work I was delighted by a bird song. Lilting, varied, musical. I couldn't see the bird and I was so glad to have my hearing aids in. For a moment I removed them and I couldn't hear the bird at all. As my hearing loss progresses I expect that some day birdsong will be a memory.


One more week of Ramadan. The last day is the 17th!


July 11


Li'l Bit, the kitten has not grown much but what he lacks in size he makes up for in feistiness and personality. Lacking other kittens to play with he pounces on everything, especially our feet when at table. If there was a litter he must have been the runt. He's gradually getting more coordinated. His ears are too big for his head and his head is still too big for his little body. He eats ravenously.

I feel sorry for the little guy. He's been deprived of a mother's milk and grooming and the close, soft, warmth of nursing with other kittens. What it must be like to hear all those other kittens kneading and purring.

He and Dog have a unique relationship. Dog will push him around with his nose and occasionally pick him up and gently carry him in his mouth. They stalk each other and Li'l Bit scampers out on hind legs front paws in the air and claws out, trying to bat Dog's nose, then high-tails it into the shrubbery. Dog puts up with it all with gentle good humor.

It's been many years since I've had a dog around, since Spar, my yellow lab died. I'd forgotten what it was like to be greeted by someone so happy to see you he dances around and turns pirouettes. Mainly, he's a grave, stolid sort of fellow but he does have his moments of doggy joy.


Today, I painted the solar panel frame as well as the door to the building. Vieux and Mahdi were busy tiling my office and Moussa Camara painted the bedroom. It is a very light beige to go with the beige tiles and the orange Kilim rug that will go on it. Got to find a suitable bedspread.


Malang dug two vegetable gardens and tomorrow a load of fertilizer will be delivered. We'll dig it in in the morning and transplant seedlings: eggplant, Chimayo chillis, poblano chillis, tomatoes and Swiss chard. I'll also put in some corn seeds from America. I hope they take. Last time I tried to grow US corn here it didn't work. I'll be putting in some oregano and basil, as well. I've got to get someone to send some pinto beans and small red beans. I think they'd do well here.


We've put in four coconut palms from Cote d'Ivoire as well as the two date palms I started from pits and the two other coco palms we already had. Then there are the two avocados, four mango trees and six varied citrus. I'm looking forward to seeing the two flamboyant trees when they bloom.


Vieux will work tomorrow, then he will take a week off to be with his family in Kaolack, in Northern Senegal, for Eid al Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. It will slow things down, but there is still plenty we can do in his absence. Lots of clean-up work. Hardy weeds to dig out. Stumps to dig out. Concrete block fragments galore and piles of dirt everywhere.


July 15


I think the kitten, Li'l Bit, is not going to make it. He quit eating two days ago. He'll take water but no food and he is obviously weak and losing weight. I don't know what to do for him other than make him comfortable. It was a miracle he survived at all and he really bounced his way into our hearts. If he doesn't rally I'm going to be very sad.

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I always enjoy reading your posts Doc. One would like to think that we in the so called developed world don't experience the issues you described re: poor workmanship. On one of our jobs last week the window supplier delivered the windows and none fit. The crew that delivered the drywall left it untarped and it was soaked in the rain. I keep repeating "it's 2015, when will this ever change". I identify with your construction issues. Sorry to hear about L'il Bit.



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Hiya, Marty! And thanks for the nice comments.


Happy to say, Li'l Bit did another turn-around and is back to his usual, feisty self. Amazing! He has such a will to live.


This morning he was chasing some half-grown chicks, stalking, then chasing. When Dog saw it he ran over and gave the kitten a bat with his nose. Just one. Enough to knock him over and let him know that chasing chickens is off limits. I was bowled over myself.


AND, for the first time, I saw Dog grin today. When he first came he was sick, wormy, and pretty much just surviving each day. Now, I see him happy and having fun.


Does my heart good!

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Doc, Thank you for the updates. I find your accounts very interesting, heartfelt and inspiring. Keep up the good work!

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